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Understanding Poverty

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October 2001. The Population Commission (Popcom) said there are 30.6 million Filipinos or 6.12 million families who are suffering from poverty. When I learned about this, I took consolation with the notion that I am not alone, yet I felt dismayed over the complacency of our national government officials who seem undisturbed by the fact that 40 percent of their constituents live below the poverty line throughout the country's 78 provinces, 84 cities or 41,940 barangays. How can they sit back and relax?

There are about 77 million Filipinos today, and this number is growing by 2.05 percent annually. This means that some 1.5 million Filipinos are born every year, 600,000 of whom to poor parents. Some 32.5 million Filipinos, comprising 66.3 percent of the population, are considered matured enough to work. But 3.3 million of these people, or 10.1 percent of the workforce, cannot find jobs while 5.2 million others, or 17.7 percent, have no regular source of income.

By international standards, these are critical problems. The Taiwanese government is in the brink of panic, because the unemployment rate in that country just north of Luzon is threatening to hit 5 percent, year-on-year. Yet, our Filipino government officials are sitting relaxed inside posh restaurants and five-star hotels, as 8.5 million Filipinos or 28 percent of the workforce are trying to figure out where to source the next meal for their families.

According to the World Bank, the Philippines had a per capita GNP of US$1,050 in 1999, compared to China's US$780, Indonesia's US$600, Vietnam's US$370, Lao's US$290 or Cambodia's US$280. Yet, the Philippines' poverty incidence rate of 40 percent is higher than China's 3 percent, Indonesia's 23 percent, Vietnam's 37 percent, Lao's 38 percent or Cambodia's 36 percent. Why is that? Wealth in the Philippines is concentrated on the hands of the few, that's why. It is the World Bank, and not the NDF, which gave such explanation.

Now consider this, the prestigious Forbes magazine has included at least five Filipinos in the list of world billionaires (US dollars). Let us rejoice! Imagine, highly industrial and welfare states like France, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden do not have a single representative to the billionaires' circle.

Among Southeast Asian countries, poverty incidence is most extreme in the Philippines where some 15.3 million Filipinos (half of the poor population) wake up every morning without food on the table. These people are called subsistence individuals or whose income cannot provide for basic food requirements. Popcom's data is even conservative because in its interpretation, a family of six earning a total of P72,000 a year is not considered poor. In contrast, a study conducted by the National Wages and Productivity Commission (NWPC) pegged the minimum income that a family of six must earn annually at P191,874 in order to live decently in Metro Manila.

The labor sector has been demanding for a P125 daily wage hike or 50 percent of the current level but the group of employers claimed that such wage adjustment would force many establishments out of business. Listening more to the rhetoric of the rich rather than to the howl of the poor, the Regional Tripartite Wage Board has approved only a P30 daily wage increase in the metropolis. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) event want us to believe that the previous minimum daily wage of US$5 (P250) in Manila is much higher than China's US$1. Ironically, the Philippines reported a poverty incidence rate of 40 percent, much higher than China's 3 percent.

What makes things more difficult for us is the high prices of commodities. The country's inflation rate, estimated at 6 to 7 percent annually, is the highest in Asia. Japan, a super rich country, is ironically having a deflation.

Let us make some computation. A person who is covered by the minimum wage would not take home P250 a day. Most likely, the wage, after tax and pension deductions, on top of travel and meal expenses, would amount to something like P150. A person who passes by a fastfood center, which is not in anyway a luxurious restaurant, might spend at least P50, or 33 percent of his take-home income on a roll of rice and a fried chicken wing. That explains his purchasing power. Imagine spending all of your daily income in just three meals at an inexpensive restaurant. Food is supposed to account for less than 20 percent of a man's expenses.

While it might be true that a P125 daily wage adjustment will be bad for business (the Central Banks warned it would push inflation rate to 18 percent), this might be the only option that the poor has against poverty. Unless the government can do something like bringing the prices of food and other basic commodities, there is no other recourse but to increase the poor's purchasing power. The government needs to do its own computation, and put some system in managing the affairs of the nation.

Sadly, it seems that our government officials haven't learned anything from the past. Only last year, about 500 people were killed when a 50-meter pile of garbage collapsed on their makeshift houses in a dumpsite in Quezon City. This was the absolute face of poverty, whose image failed to instill understanding among our numb leaders. Now, who could blame the 20,000 protesters who stormed to Malacanang Palace last May 1. The people in the media, who were not even aware on what the attack was about, had the guts to brand these protesters a mob of poor and undisciplined warriors.

It also seems that the current crop of leaders have nothing to offer, and one opposition senator even admitted that in 30 years, the Philippines will not even reach the level of Thailand, which I understand, is still a poor country. This is anything but encouraging. Imagine spending the next 30 years of your life in poverty (if the tension in Central Asia does not lead into another world war, of course). We wait for a day that one leader will rise to change our mindset and status in life. Someone who will promise to turn the Philippines into a country of mostly rich people in his lifetime and can convince us that he really can.

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